Julian Robertson once had a fear of words. As an elementary and middle school student Robertson struggled with reading and writing. His life changed when his mother, upon his request, enrolled him in a summer theater camp. There, Robertson learned the power of language and this influenced him to embark upon artistic and academic pursuits that harness that power.
Robertson, who is now 19 years old, graduated from the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in 2016. It was at Douglas Anderson that Robertson challenged his reading abilities. Being self conscious of his reading level, while in the 9th grade Robertson borrowed books from upperclassmen and would then read the books alongside a dictionary, which he would refer to when he didn't know the meaning of a word. It was in the 10th grade that Robertson, as a result of seeing similarities between hip hop and poetry, began to find his voice and overcome his fear of writing. What's equally important is that during Robertson's formative years he had people around him encouraging him to cultivated his artistic craft and pursue his passions.
Robertson has overcome obstacles and barriers that are far too often a reality for the youth in Jacksonville's underserved neighborhoods. His family has known extreme financial hardships, which even resulted in the teen being homeless for a period of time. Through it all, however, Robertson continued to move forward and pursue theater. As a result of his dedication and hard work, Robertson was one of 18 acting students accepted to The Juilliard School, the nations premier performing arts conservatory, during the 2016-2017 academic year with a full-ride scholarship.
Robertson is back in Jacksonville for the summer. From May 25 through the 27th Phase Eight Theater Company will present "MLK Boulevard," a play written by Robertson. This is the fourth play written by Robertson and the second time that Robertson has paired with JaMario Stills, the Founder and Artistic Director of Phase Eight. The two previously worked together on Robertson's play "Broke," which was presented by The Performer's Academy, where Stills previously worked as Director of Development.
Robertson's work calls upon his experience growing up in Jacksonville's Northside and his characters are shaped by people that he knows from his neighborhood and school. Many of these individuals exhibit characteristics and and behaviors that can be described as survival mode. This creates a tone of authenticity that surrounds Robertson and his work.
Though Robertson received a full-ride scholarship to Juilliard, he must still contend with out of pocket expenses associated with education. Because of that, a gofundme campaign was launched to help raise additional funds for Robertson.
10 Questions with Julian Robertson
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I always start with a person or an idea, these being the most basic units of any project. I then dig around those elements trying to find what all is there. I do some research and have conversations with people and through that process I start to pinpoint the story that I want to tell.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
One of the greatest things about people is our ability to unify behind a story. I can see now, as I exercise my artistry and expand my mind, that I have power, and more power than I previously thought. My voice strengthens by the day and I now see possibilities that didn’t exist a few years ago. It only takes one person to start a movement.
How do you define success in what you do?
So much work goes into every project. It really is an accomplishment to finish and see what comes from it. In doing that, I get the opportunity to push myself to further places. Seeing my work advance is very satisfying. However, I do hope that at some point in the future my efforts translate into something that financially supports me.
Did pursing the arts benefit or impact your academic pursuits?
I read differently as a result of doing theatre. Before, I found it very difficult to get anywhere beyond a surface level interpretation of any text. Now, I find myself digging in and investigating. That has a great deal to do with the different types of things that you look for as an actor. I have also learned how to do research at home, in the library, and in the world. That's something I'm finding incredibly beneficial.
How have the arts impacted your life?
A sense of community is the greatest thing that I get from participating in the theater. It has given me a way to connect with people, learn, grow, and express myself. I find the creative process to be cathartic. At the end of the day when I leave those creative spaces I am in a better place mentally to deal with the things that come at me. That has been a great help to me.
What role has community played in your development as an artist?
It's my community and family that helped me get to the place where I am today, as well as all of the stepping stones along the way. Community is what I fall back to when things get tough and I need time to decompress. It's also where I celebrate and gather inspiration, which moves me forward in my creative expression.
Can you describe the emotions you felt during your Juilliard auditions, as well as the emotions you felt on the day you received your acceptance letter from the school?
I didn't find myself getting very nervous during my audition with Juilliard, which surprised me. I spent most of my time focused on trying to defrost myself after having walked through tons of snow on my way to the building where my audition occurred. I felt very at ease being there and my first audition felt more like a class. It was a relaxed setting and I loved working on my monologues with a teacher from the faculty. Everything after the first audition rushed by and it seem like all at once I was accepted.
The emotions I felt when accepted were definitely upstaged by the shock. It took weeks to really believe that I actually did get in.
Now that you've completed your first year at Julliard how does reality compare to your expectations?
We certainly work as hard as I expected we would, if not more. In terms of the environment, it is entirely different than what I expected. Going in blind, I expected the place to be sterile. I thought there would be a bunch of Juilliard robots walking around. In reality, the school is full of life in tradition. The faculty really cares about the students and is invested in their growth as artists and as people. The teachers are just as excited to be there as the students. It's a much more nurturing environment than I expected.
What is the tone and theme of "MLK Boulevard"?
In MLK Boulevard, a young man struggles to maintain his world despite the changes that threaten to take it away. After being confronted by the greatest challenge he has ever known, he strives to create a place for his people to have safety, freedom, and glory. His struggle to achieve comes with an incomprehensibly grave cost.
When in New York what do you find yourself most often mentioning when you talk about Jacksonville?
It is so easy to mention the weather or the beach when talking about Jacksonville.